While the Murdoch organisation long ago abandoned the pretence that phone-hacking was not rife at the now-defunct News of the World, it has always denied that journalists at its surviving tabloid, the Sun, hacked people’s phones. A landmark case has now changed the picture.
The actress Sienna Miller sued on the basis of allegations “solely relating to” the Sun and the Murdoch company, News Group Newspapers (NGN), has now agreed to pay her “substantial” damages – an outcome she described as “tantamount to an admission of liability”.
Though NGN still insists that it has not admitted liability for hacking at the Sun – and does so in legal terms that suggest anyone saying that it happened may be sued – the Miller settlement leaves that position bordering on the nonsensical.
Details of her claim and her views on the settlement were summarised in a statement read out on her behalf [pdf] at the High Court in London. The sum being paid to her was not disclosed but it is reasonable to assume on the basis of past pay-outs that it is well above £100,000.
The concluding paragraph of the statement says:
“Given the fact that the publishers of the Sun have agreed to pay such a substantial sum by way of damages, and have thereby avoided a public trial, in relation to her claim for unlawful information gathering solely relating to that newspaper, as well as the knowledge and concealment of those illegal activities by the editor and senior executives there, Ms Miller believes that, notwithstanding that the settlement was reached on the agreed basis of no admissions of liability, this is tantamount to an admission of liability on the part of the Sun and she therefore feels fully vindicated in having brought this claim.”
The phrase “and therefore avoided a public trial” is important. The statement says that Miller “very much wanted to pursue her claim to trial”, where the truth or otherwise of all her allegations would have been tested, and she was only prevented from doing so by concern over the costs.
“The invidious position,” the statement said, “was that Ms Miller was faced with a potential bill of millions of pounds for the trial itself, even if she proves her case.”
This is because civil cases such as this one are always about money, so if a defendant offers a financial settlement ahead of trial that the judge considers fair, a complainant who says no and insists on a trial usually has to bear the full costs of both sides, win or lose.
By paying Miller so much in settlement, therefore, the Murdoch company escapes having the detail of the allegations examined through witness evidence in court. This is now common in hacking litigation and hundreds of millions of pounds have been paid out to claimants. Only once has a civil hacking case come to court – the Gulati case, involving the Mirror groups – and that result was disastrous for the newspaper defendants.
Nick Parker still works at the Sun, as chief foreign correspondent. He has a criminal conviction for receiving the stolen mobile phone of an MP and was the author in 2019 of a notorious front-page article intruding into the private lives of cricketer Ben Stokes and his family.
A further disclosure of documents to the court by NGN related to mobile phone call data.
“This disclosure comprised records of phone calls made by NGN journalists to mobile phones in relation to her and four of her friends and members of her family, as well as private investigator invoices to the Sun and records of contributor payments by the Sun to alleged private investigators such as Christine Hart,” the statement says.
“Based upon these documents, Ms Miller’s firm belief is that the call data and private investigator /payment disclosure showed that she was a subject of unlawful gathering techniques from around 2003. There was also call data disclosed for every one of her four associates. She was shocked and disturbed to discover what she believed to be the prolonged, substantial and targeted voicemail interception and unlawful information gathering activities carried out by journalists at the Sun.”
Also in relation to hacking, the statement says: “Furthermore, there were also three invoices from a company called ELI, or Express Locate International, an alleged PI company who allegedly specialised in unlawful searches related preparatory to phone-hacking.”
The name of Rebekah Brooks, the CEO of the Murdoch organisation in the UK, figures in the statement: “Ms Miller alleged that Ms Brooks, Mr Parker and Ms Hart were responsible for leaking the pregnancy and that their actions… had led her to being unable to trust those closest to her when she really needed them. It was already an incredibly stressful and difficult time in her life but the Sun’s targeting of her made it traumatic.”
Miller’s statement was followed swiftly by a very similar statement from the footballer Paul Gascoigne, who had also sued on the basis of allegations that exclusively concerned the Sun, who has also received a very substantial settlement and who also asserted, despite the denials of liability from the paper, that he regarded the outcome as tantamount to an admission of guilt.
Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London and the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’ (1999)
This post originally appeared in the Byline Times and is reproduced with permission and thanks